international sanctions

Do International Sanctions Work?

When nations break the law, do international sanctions work?

There are several types of sanctions, all usually aimed at isolating countries that violate international law or its citizens’ human rights.

Sanctions can be diplomatic, like the classic ambassador recall, or related to sports, such as the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

The most wide-reaching, though, are economic sanctions, such as trade bans or restrictions on currency trading.

For instance, E.U. and U.S. sanctions against Iran in the last two years have devalued the currency by more than two-thirds.

Do international sanctions work?

Those crippling sanctions have been credited for forcing the Iranians to negotiate.

However, scholarly research examining the history of sanctions – such as this paper published in Cambridge University’s World Politics Journal – have “documented only a modest success rate for imposed sanctions.”

The debate has been ongoing for more than a decade.

It’s becoming increasingly clear, however, that economic sanctions often have unintended consequences.

As journalist Glenn Greenwald points out, and as the UN Security Council itself acknowledges, economic sanctions can have devastating effects on the general populace, and particularly on those already in poverty.

These effects include inflation, unemployment, food and medicine shortages.

Some academics have even argued that such economic sanctions help (pdf) autocratic regimes, by reducing the population’s ability to resist.

Smart sanctions

While broad economic sanctions are still in place on countries like Iran, Cuba and North Korea (the two latter of which have been sanctioned for decades), the trend internationally has been towards so-called “smart sanctions.”

These focus their efforts on individuals in offending regimes, not the nation as a whole.

Measures can include travel bans, freezes on assets in foreign banks, and trade sanctions on specific goods (such as the U.N.’s import ban on Kim Jong-Un’s favorite liquor, Hennessey).

Whether or not these types of sanctions are effective is still being debated. Certainly, the latest sanctions against a group of top Russian officials did not seem to be, sparking mockery from those targeted, such as deputy PM Dmitry Rogozin:

I think some prankster prepared the draft of this Act of the US President)

— Dmitry Rogozin (@DRogozin) March 17, 2014

Sanctions have always relied on broad international cooperation (such as an E.U.-U.S. coalition) to be effective. League of Nations economic sanctions against Italy after the invasion of Ethiopia in 1935, for instance, proved toothless when Britain and France refused to comply.

So it may be that in our globalized and increasingly multipolar world, where even a EU-wide boycott of Russian gas and oil would just mean more for China, sanctions are less likely to be effective than ever.

Updated. Originally published 4.2.2014

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Ole Skaar